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May 24, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) celebrates against the Atlanta Hawks in game three of the Eastern Conference Finals of the NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena.
David Richard-USA Today Sports
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SHOTS FIRED

The NBA finals are as much about the sneaker wars as they are about basketball

By Marc Bain

The NBA finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers begin tonight, offering a showdown between the Warriors’ Stephen Curry, a quickly rising star and this year’s league MVP, and the Cavaliers’ LeBron James, the best player in the game and arguably even better than the legendary Michael Jordan.

And just as they do for James and Curry—the king and the upstart—the finals offer a head-to-head match up of sorts for their sponsors, another king and another upstart: Nike and Under Armour.

Nike is the undisputed ruler of the more than $25 billion US sneaker market. It also sponsors James and puts out his LeBron sneakers. (It sponsors teammate Kyrie Irving as well, though knee issues are hampering his play.)

On the other side, Under Armour, which is still tiny compared to Nike but growing fast—and not afraid to take Nike head on—backs Curry and launched his signature sneaker this year. (Nike passed on sponsoring Curry two years ago, adding a little retribution to the pot if he and the Warriors can top James, Irving, and the Cavaliers.)

Clearly the stakes are high for Under Armour. If viewership matches last year’s numbers, about 15.5 million people will be watching the finals. Those eyeballs have a lot of value to a brand that’s still relatively under-the-radar. It needs to get its name out, which is why its been upping its sponsorship of athletes. Lots of clips of Curry in Under Armour sneakers, displaying his seriously amazing dribbling skills, or rattling off 3-pointers without a thought, would go a long way toward helping Under Armour get people into its sneakers and apparel.

Nike is so dominant that the series won’t change the company’s fate. But these big sporting events and the players in them still matter. Sports are at the foundation of Nike’s brand and success, and basketball is one of the jewels in the company’s crown. In fact, sports are the key to US market share, which is why a player like LeBron James has more influence on sneaker sales than someone like, say, rapper Kanye West. Nike sold $340 million worth of LeBron’s signature sneakers in 2014.

For Nike, getting its name circulating around the NBA finals might also help it move past any brush with the FIFA scandal, though it seems unlikely at this point that the investigation will target anyone outside FIFA or that Nike’s sales will feel any effect.

Not least, the outcome of this series could matter when it comes time for companies to bid for the NBA sponsorship. The current sponsor, Adidas, won’t be bidding again, leaving Nike and Under Armour as the two companies best positioned to snap it up. If Under Armour sees any boost from this series, it’s more reason for it to try.